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In compromise, budget panel agrees to new limits on motel housing program

People shake hands across a table
Glenn Russell
House and Senate conferees shake hands after agreeing on a budget bill during a conference committee meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

State budget writers have decided against a contentious cap on the number of households that can access Vermont’s motel voucher program for unhoused people during the winter months. But as lawmakers finalize plans for next year’s spending, advocates continue to prepare for new limits to a program that currently shelters the bulk of the state’s unhoused residents.

House and Senate budget writers finished hashing out their differences over next year’s budget midday Tuesday, passing the “Big Bill” out of a committee of conference. Among the most disputed sections was the future of the emergency housing program.

While both chambers allocated about $44 million for the program in the coming fiscal year, they disagreed about how to best match the contours of the program to that dollar amount. The Senate’s version of the budget put a lid on the number of rooms, a measure intended to rein in costs as the state scales back the program’s pandemic-era expansion. The House’s version included no such caps.

The version key lawmakers have landed on is a sort of hybrid. A 1,100-room cap would kick in during the warmer months, beginning on Sept. 15, and be lifted during the winter. But eligibility during the colder months — historically open to anyone experiencing homelessness — would be limited to households that meet certain vulnerability criteria.

“It feels right to have the most vulnerable in the winter to not have the limitations on the rooms,” Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, told colleagues around the negotiating table Monday night.

The conference committee’s pivot from the Senate’s budget proposal comes as something of a surprise. Throughout the negotiations, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the powerful chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, continually emphasized that key House members had informally agreed to the room cap provisions before heading into conference committee deliberations. Lanpher said in late April that she felt that the Senate’s version was mostly settled.

Asked what changed, Lanpher said simply, “there was reaction.”

Indeed, over the last two weeks, advocates for unhoused Vermonters, service providers, and the mayors of Burlington and Winooski have all lambasted the room cap proposal, arguing that the limits would push more people into unsheltered homelessness. Members of the House’s left flank criticized the Senate’s position. And even Gov. Phil Scott, who has long advocated for shrinking the program, said at a press conference last week that the room cap proposal might inhibit Vermonters in need of assistance.

“I am hopeful that we have all of the pieces that people can agree with now,” Lanpher said, after Tuesday’s vote. The full House and Senate must still sign off on the agreement before it heads to the governor.

Lanpher also pointed to increased funding for shelters in the budget, including an additional $10 million for emergency shelters, specifically to be stood up between December and March for people who do not meet the motel program’s eligibility criteria during the coldest months of the year.

The intent is to create a kind of backup for winter shelter — and to avoid a repeat of the bare-bones shelters stood up by the state this past March, Lanpher said, which guests needed to vacate by 7 a.m. each morning. Language in the budget remains vague around whether these emergency shelters will operate throughout the day, however, specifying only that the Department for Children and Families work with “community providers as available to deliver daytime and overnight shelter services.”

Advocates for unhoused Vermonters expressed some relief on Tuesday that lawmakers dropped the winter-weather room cap. But they continued to voice concerns about a new 80-day limit on households’ motel room stays outside of the winter months — and about the 1,100-room cap that’s slated to go into effect this fall.

The motel program currently serves about 1,500 households who meet vulnerability criteria — including disabled people, elderly people, and people fleeing domestic violence. That count includes 565 children, as of late April. The program shelters many of the state’s unhoused residents: Traditional shelters have space for about 550 households, and are generally full.

Last month, DCF Commissioner Chris Winters said the department wanted more clarity from legislators on how to prioritize who will get one of the limited spots available come September. But the budget language offers little guidance. Asked what she expected DCF to do as it prepares to downsize the program, Lanpher emphasized that lawmakers spelled out vulnerability criteria in the bill.

Yet everyone currently in the program meets vulnerability requirements set by lawmakers themselves.

Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont, said she is bracing for a first-come, first-served system that will put high-risk people in danger.

“If somebody on oxygen, or somebody in a wheelchair is not in the first-come, first-served category, if a child is not in the first-come, first-served category, those people are going to end up without shelter. And that is going to be deadly for some people,” she said.

A final version of the budget is set to head to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk by the end of the week.

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Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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